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Ancient Greece

The ancient Greeks as a civilisation have arguably affected the Western World more than any other in history. Their contributions of science, philosophy, architecture, politics and drama are felt every day by the modern world. However, the Ancient Greeks were never part of a Greece as we know it today. The Ancient Greeks were actually a loose grouping of hundreds of individual city states, typically a single city surrounded by a varying amount of agricultural land with several outlying towns and villages.

The Ancient Greeks were never united in one Greek nation and their habitations extended far beyond what is now Modern Greece. They did inhabit the modern Greek mainland and Aegean islands, but also nearly all of the modern Turkish coastline, particularly on the side of the Aegean, several locations on the Black Sea, Cyprus, some towns and cities in Egypt, the Cyrenaica in modern Libya, much of Sicily including Syracuse, Southern Italy including Paestum and Cumae, modern Naples, Sardinia, even spreading as far as Spain, and founding Massilia, now Marseille.

What is ‘Greek’?

The question then is what made Greeks Greek. Herodotus writes, “Greek people, with whom we are united in sharing the same kinship and language, with whom we have established shrines and conduct sacrifices to the gods together, and with whom we also share the same way of life.” (VIII:144.2).

The ‘Greek way of life’ is a tricky thing to define but there are many common characteristics: a market place, the agora, as the centre of city life and far more than a market place – think of the Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, the Old Bailey, and Covent Garden rolled into one; religion as a central part of both personal and civic life; and a strong notion of law, nomos, and civic involvement in politics. The Greeks at least in theory shared a common ethnicity, with several subsections, although many colonies will have mingled extensively with the native populations. This is why foundation stories, Syracuse in Sicily as a Corinthian colony, Cyrene in Libya as a colony of Thasos, were so important. The Greek language was widely spread, although with several dialects, and would become a ‘lingua franca’ for much of the Mediterranean and the Roman Empire. Finally, all Greeks with some adaptation, shared a common religion which survives to us today in the form of Greek myths. All these parameters though were flexible, and many peoples claimed to be Greek or like the Greeks and it is with this very loose definition of ‘Greek’ we should consider the Greek world.

Greek Mythology


The Greek origin myth, as first told by Hesiod, is that there was originally Chaos, before there spawned Gaia (Earth) and Ouranos (Sky) who gave birth to the Titans as well as the Cyclops and Hecatonchires (100 handed giants). One child, Kronos, a corn god, castrated Ouranos and became king of the gods. Ouranos’ sperm fell into the sea to form Aphrodite.

Kronos and Rhea then gave birth to the Olympians, including Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Demeter, and Hera. Kronos feared his children would usurp him, as he did to Ouranos, and so ate them all as they were born until Rhea hid her youngest child, Zeus, and replaced him with a stone, which Kronos ate instead. When grown, Zeus challenged Kronos. He gave him a drug which made him vomit up the eaten gods, and with their help and that of the Cyclops, freed by Zeus from Tartarus and creators of his thunderbolt, defeated the Titans and imprisoned them in Tartarus, except some including Oceanus (Ocean), Atlas, who held up the sky, Helios (Sun) and Prometheus. The stone was set up in the Delphi as the centre of the world and a cult monument.

The other gods were sprung from this time on, many from the marriage of Zeus and Hera, but many more from the lustful Zeus’ extra-marital affairs, and Athena, fully grown and dressed for war, from his own skull after he ate her mother Metis (Cunning).

An interesting observation is that in Babylonian and Hittite mythology, there is a very similar progression of the sky god being castrated and defeated by the corn god, in turn defeated by the storm god. Such details seem to suggest Greek mythology spread from these cultures.


Zeus then created the human race, at first only men, who were given the gift of fire by the Titan Prometheus who stole it from heaven. This greatly angered Zeus and as punishment he chained Prometheus to a rock, where each morning a vulture would come and eat his guts, before healing overnight, as an immortal god, for the vulture to repeat the act again the next day. This was until Zeus took pity and sent his son Hercules to free Prometheus. To punish humans, Zeus ordered Hephaestus to create woman, the first being Pandora (meaning All Gifts), who was accordingly given needlework and clothes by Athena, grace and beauty by Aphrodite, a deceiptful nature by Hermes, and necklaces and a crown by Persuasion and the Graces. She was also given a jar, which in later myth became a box, in which were contained all the evils of the world but also hope. Pandora promptly opened the jar, and thus evil was explained in the world.


Greek myth was created to explain the world, and aspects such as the existence of evil, and explains much about Greek thinking and the way they understood their world. Another example is the myth of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, the goddess of fertility. She was abducted by Hades, the god of the Underworld, and this caused a crisis among the gods. Zeus, as god of the sky, was not meant to interfere with the Underworld, but Demeter’s sadness meant no food was grown and so Zeus was forced to order Hades to return Persephone. However, Hades first tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds and thus to accept his hospitality as host to a guest, a very important relationship in Ancient Greece. So Persephone was forced to spend one third of the year in the Underworld, two thirds with her mother on Earth, and so the Greeks explained the seasons and the infertile winter months due to Persephone’s absence and Demeter’s sadness.


Paris, a prince of Troy (a city in North West Turkey), visited Sparta and fell in love with its queen, Helen. The two ran away together back to Troy to the great anger of her husband Menelaus. He asked for the help of his brother, Agamemnon king of Mycenae and the most powerful king in Greece. He collected a vast army of all the kings of Greece, including Achilles, Odysseus and Ajax to attack Troy. The siege lasted 10 years and was the setting of many famous adventures.

Troy, Turkey, David Spender, Flickr Creative Commons

Troy, Turkey, David Spender, Flickr Creative Commons

The most famous account is that of Homer, whose Iliad covers several days in the last year of the war. Agamemnon and Achilles, the best fighter on the Greek side, argue over a slave-girl, Briseis, causing Achilles’ now famous wrath and him to refuse to fight. After the Greeks begin to lose badly, his friend and often thought lover, Patroclus, dons Achilles’ armour and pushes the Trojans back, to then be killed by their champion, Prince Hector. Achilles’ wrath shifts and an inevitable showdown occurs in which Hector dies. But Achilles’ wrath is not done, and he ties Hector’s body to the back of his chariot and drags it three times round the city and leaves it to rot, shocking and against all morals, even in war. But the gods protect Hector’s body and guide his father, King Priam, right into the Greek camp, where a moving meeting convinces Achilles to release his wrath, return the body and Priam safely to Troy, and to suspend fighting to allow a burial.

Other stories include Achilles’ death by an arrow in his heel. His goddess mother Thetis dipped him as a baby into the river Styx, the river of the Underworld, to make him invulnerable except where she held him, by the heel, leaving one weakness, his Achilles’ heel. Another is the Trojan horse in which several Greeks hid as the rest pretended to go home, only to return once the hidden soldiers opened the gates, and so Troy finally fell. Finally, Homer’s Odyssey recounts Odysseus’s ten year journey home encountering the Cyclops, Sirens and witch Circe on the way home, before returning to reclaim his home from the evil suitors and to be reunited with his faithful wife Penelope and now grown son, Telemachus.


Mycenaeans and Minoans

If there was a Trojan war, it was during the Mycenaean and Minoan civilisations from around 1600BC to 1100BC. The Mycenaeans were a civilisation that lived in mainland Greece and achieved great wealth and power. The treasure hordes of Mycenae, the biggest city, and other places such as Tiryns are impressive but even more so are the vast walls that surround all the cities.

Unlike these, the Minoans lived on Crete, and their cities are remarkably free of walls. Instead they seemed to have enjoyed a peaceful period, with fantastic art work in their large palaces such as Knossos, extensive agricultural land and evidence of trade throughout the Mediterranean. One Minoan colony, Thera, now Santorini, suffered a large volcanic eruption that caused most of the island to sink, perhaps creating the myth of Atlantis.

Both civilisations were known to the Hittites, from whom we do have some textual evidence, perhaps most excitingly of a city, Wilusa, very similar to Troy’s alternative name Ilium or Ilios. Perhaps this is the historical city of the Trojan War. What is most puzzling is that both civilisations mysteriously disappeared, with no sign of destruction or disaster.

Athens and Sparta

Civilisation in Greece experienced a resurgence from 800BC onwards until Roman conquest of the area, finalised in 146BC. Two states or cities remained prominent across this period: Athens and Sparta.

Sparta was located in Laconia in the South-East Peloponnese, a fertile land but surrounded by hilly passes that acted as excellent fortification. This and Spartan military prowess meant the city was never walled. Sparta is now considered a warrior nation, but this was only achieved by victory over and conquest of neighbouring Messenia, making a vast territory for a Greece city. The Messenians were enslaved and became helots, whose agricultural serfdom provided for the Spartan ruling class and enabled their devotion to military training. Any unhealthy baby was hurled from a high rock or abandoned at birth. The agoge was a compulsory school of war, begun at age 7. The Spartan ideal was to excel and die in war and never surrender. Sparta was ruled by two kings, who were mainly in charge of war, but there were also five ephors for the five Spartan villages and a council of gerontes (elders). Sparta waged near constant border wars against Argos and the Achaeans, before rivalry with Athens led to the Peloponnesian Wars. Centuries of near constant war and the exclusivity of the ruling class led to a large population decline which caused Sparta’s later loss of military prowess from the 4th century BC onwards.

Athens was located in Attica in central Greece, again a relatively large territory for a Greek city, and mostly rocky. The city rose to prominence after the Persian Wars of 499-449BC, when her fleet, actually built to defeat the nearby island rival Aegina, was vital in fending off the Persian invasion. Her fleet also allowed Athens to create something like an Empire throughout much of the Aegean, with subject states paying annual tribute. This wealth made Athens a metropolis and bred an attitude of scholarship that attracted many of the famous names known to us today. Thucydides, Socrates and Plato, were all Athenian, and many more scholars, such as Herodotus, spent time in the city. The annual dramatic competition also spawned the likes of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes. Another factor in this reputation was its adoption of democracy, which became popular throughout Greece.


Persian Wars

The Persians, with an empire stretching from Iran to Egypt, had conquered the Greek cities in Ionia, or now the Turkish Coast. In 499BC, these Greek cities rebelled with the aid of independent Athens and Eretria. Having suppressed the revolt, the Persian king Darius vowed to avenge these two states’

involvement. One expedition in 490 conquered the Cyclades and Euboea (Evvia), razing Eretria to the ground, before finally being stopped by the Athenians at Marathon. The run of the messenger from the battle site to Athens to announce the victory is the namesake of the modern race, the marathon.

However, Darius was unfinished and his death in 486 BC did not end Persian ambition, with his son Xerxes continuing preparation for a larger invasion in 480 BC, modern scholars estimating 300,000-500,000 strong. This uniquely bound many Greek states together, although many surrendered immediately. Xerxes crossed the Dardanelles on a bridge of ships tied together and marched down through Northern Greece. His first major hinderance was a small force at the narrow pass of Thermopylae by several thousand allied Greeks, and a similar holding fleet at nearby Artemisium. The Greeks remarkably held the much larger Persian army until a Greek goatherd betrayed the Greeks and told Xerxes of a route behind the Greek position. At this moment, Leonidas famously stayed with his 300 Spartans, but in fact also with 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans, to delay the Persians in a suicide mission whilst the other Greeks retreated.

This left Athens open, but there had already been a prophecy Athens’ protection was her wooden walls. Most believed it to mean her fleet and so evacuated to the nearby island of Salamis. Sure enough, the general Themistocles blackmailed the rest of the Greek fleet to stay and tricked the Persian fleet into sailing rashly into the narrow strait between Salamis and the mainland. Here they were trapped by a hidden Greek fleet blocking their rear and the more manoeuvrable Greek triremes, ships with three rows of oars, won a stunning victory against a much larger fleet, destroying it nearly entirely.

Athens was nonetheless sacked, and with this objective complete and the crushing defeat at sea, Xerxes left home with most of his army. A small force of 70,000 was left under the general Mardonius, which was defeated in 479 at Plataea, again largely due to the Spartans. This begun a Greek fightback that pushed the Persians out of all Greek territory, including the coast of Turkey, but also left two superpowers, Athens and Sparta, who would eventually come to war.

Peloponnesian War

Athens particularly benefitted from the Persian defeat, taking over leadership of the Greek effort from Sparta and establishing the Delian League, an alliance with a combined treasury at Delos. However, once the treasury was moved to Athens, this alliance became an Empire, controlled by Athens’ unbeatable navy, and provoked fear and resentment among other Greek cities, especially Corinth, Sparta’s ally. Eventually, Sparta declared war in 431 BC, invading Athens several times. But Athens had built walls between the city and her port at Piraeus. Sparta could not scale the walls and Athens’ fleet allowed to maintain her empire as well as import anything needed to survive. Athens even won a shocking surrender by Spartan troops at Pylos before a daring Spartan campaign in far Northern Greece and a devastating plague at Athens forced a treaty in 421 BC.

In this brief peace, Athens continued to expand, most ambitiously and disastrously into Sicily in 415-3 BC. This ended with utter defeat and the loss of around 10,000 men and 200 ships. During this time, war with Sparta recommenced but despite the Sicily expedition and several shocking naval defeats, Athens fought on until Persian Empire funded Sparta’s navy. A final and total defeat at the sea battle of Aegospotami, and a long siege forced an Athenian surrender in 404BC.

Alexander the Great

Phillip II was king of Macedon, a kingdom North of Greece usually held to be uncivilised but with a strong Greek influence. He conquered most of the Greek states but was assassinated age 46 in 336BC, leaving his young son Alexander to rule. Quickly putting down several revolts, including destroying Thebes, he moved against the Persian Empire and in a matter of years had defeated its ruler Darius entirely, conquering the major cities such as Babylon and razing the Persian capital Persepolis. Alexander continued even further East, campaign successfully in Pakistan, the foothills of Himalayas, and modern Punjab. However, his army then refused to go on and Alexander was forced to return home. His long campaign far away from home, his mixing of Persian and Macedonian practices and his increasing reliance of Persian governors and soldiers led to some malcontent and Alexander descended into megalomania, executing many of his closest advisors. He died in Babylon from a sudden illness aged just 33.

Mosaic of Alexander the Great, National Archeological Museum of Naples, Pompeii

Mosaic of Alexander the Great, National Archeological Museum of Naples, Pompeii

His empire then became divided amongst his generals. This made Hellenism, or Greek culture, the presiding culture in much of the known world: there were cities called Alexandria as far as Egypt and India; there was a prolific phase called Greco-Buddhism in modern Pakistan, formed from a synchronism of Apollo and Buddha; and many Greek ruling dynasties were formed abroad. Cleopatra, that famous Egyptian queen and seductress of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, was in fact Greek. It is no doubt largely as a result of Alexander that Greek culture influenced Rome so much, and from there spread through much Western culture.



Democracy was a Greek invention that spread throughout the Greek world. It worked in a more direct form than our representative version today; there were no MPs and no government. Every citizen was able to vote in person on every issue at the assembly. However, only male citizens could vote; slaves, women, and metics (immigrants) could not.

Political positions chosen from among all citizens by lot, which meant all had reason to be politically involved – the equivalent would be you being chosen at random to serve in next month’s cabinet. Law courts also played a prominent role in Greek life, with juries created and law and rhetoric taught and encouraged to provide fair and worthy trials.


Drama was a uniquely Greek invention, with no other civilisation spawning an equivalent. It is thought to have potentially originated in the worship of Dionysus in Athens. There would be a procession between the altar and temple, which would include re-enactment of various stories

about the god. At some point, the focus went from pleasing the god, to entertaining spectators and the theatre was formed around this practice.

The stories were then extended away from Dionysus, and the focus of the City Dionysia, the festival to Dionysus, was five days of dramatic contest. There would be three tragic poets chosen, such as Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, who would write three tragic plays and a concluding satyr play. Tragedies include Oedipus Rex and Medea, but only a fraction survived, and no extant satyr play remains. Each poet would have his plays performed on one day each. A fourth day would be then present three or five comedies by different poets, a normally more light-hearted, self-aware and overtly political genre. There would then be a final day of judging. Theatres spread through-out the Greek and Roman world. Its quite a remarkable thing that to sit in the theatre of Dionysus in Athens, is to sit in the birthplace of all modern film and tv, Hollywood and drama.


The Olympics were also a Greek invention, occurring as a way of worshiping Zeus in his temple at Olympia starting in 776 BC and continuing until the Emperor Theodosius stopped them in 393 AD. Originally one day, and then extended to a longer period, the festival occurred every four years and was importantly pan-Hellenic. This means it was a festival for all Greeks, and there was traditionally a truce amongst all Greek at the time of the festival so any athlete could compete. The temple held a 12.4m high statue of Zeus, made of wood but covered in gold and ivory, which was held one of the seven wonders of the Ancient world.

Sports included: various distances of running, including one race in full armour; long jump, but from a standing start with weights in hand to swing and give momentum; discus; wrestling; boxing; pankration, thought to be an early mixed martial art; horse and chariot races. Victors were awarded olive leaf crowns and became celebrities at home.


The Olympics were the biggest of several games, other major ones including the Nemean and Pythian games. These all occurred at major religious sites as a way of honouring the gods. The Pythian games honoured Apollo at the site of Delphi, a breath-taking spot in the Greek mountains which was also the location for his famous oracle. One famous prophecy was that given to Croesus, King of Lydia, that by making war against Persia he would destroy a great empire – the empire was his own.

The gods played an important role in Greek life. It worked in a reciprocal relationship: by offering something to the god, the god would favour you and grant you something, you would then thank the god with an offering and the god would continue to favour you etc. This could be highly personal: little statues are often found in temples as gifts from individuals. On a grander scale, a city could build lavish temples to win the god’s favour. The Parthenon of Athens is such an example. Temples were designed as houses to the god, the inner sanctum of which was reserved only for the priests. Outside sacrifices would be made and festivals held. They were often located in spectacular locations, such as Delphi in the mountains or in Lindos above the city, overlooking the sea. This was to please and be closer to the god.

Philosophy and Science

The Greeks were also pioneers in Philosophy and Science. The Early Greek Philosophers were concerned with what made up the world, a progression that culminated in the theory of atoms, something which could not be cut (a- meaning negative, and -tomao meaning ‘to cut’), and ‘void’ surrounding it, which we would call vacuum, in combination making up everything in the world.

Another group followed in the practice of Socrates, including Plato. Socrates was nicknamed the horse-fly for his consistent probing questions such as, ‘what is justice?’. The question was usually answered with an example of justice, not justice itself. Aristotle himself learnt from Plato and taught Alexander the Great. He is often credited with first formally studying logic, as well as making leaps in physics and metaphysics. Pythagoras is famous now for discovering trigonometry, but also contributed to the idea of ‘soul’ as a separate and immortal part of the body, a mathematical equation ordering the movement of planets, and that the Earth was a sphere, not flat.

The Greeks were also great inventors. Archimedes is the most famous, largely due to his notorious ‘Eureka’ moment (meaning ‘I’ve found it). Supposedly in the bath, he discovered that by placing an object in water, one could measure its volume and hence deduce the volume or irregular objects. Other achievements were the Archimedes screw, a way of pumping water via a moving screw shaped blade. In the siege of his city, Syracuse, by the Romans, he also invented a claw which could pick up Roman boats from the sea and drop them onto others and mirrors which would reflect sunlight onto ships and set them on fire. He is reported to have died from angering a Roman soldier, being too preoccupied by a mathematical problem to listen to him. The Greeks even invented what is held by many as the first computer, the Antikythera mechanism, a complex of over 30 gears used to predict astronomical events decades in advance.


The Greeks were never the geo-political power the Romans or Persians were, but culturally their impact was vast. A loose group of cities and ethnicities, who fought each other far more than they were unified, were bound by a shared culture that produced some of the greatest steps in the history of human thought. It would in cases take centuries for later scholars and civilisations to catch up, but their influence on the Romans and in turn their influence on the Western world, has left such a remarkable impression in so many aspects of the modern day.

By Wilfred Sandwell